Nationalism: A Short Analysis of Primordialist and Modernist Approaches


Primordialism and modernism represent two views of nationalism from different perspectives. Primordialists have argued that modern nations emerged through the evolution of pre-modern nations. They also highlight the emotional dimension of nationalism by emphasizing the ethnic origins of modern nations. On the other hand, modernists have suggested that nationalism is a phenomenon which is emerged with the formation of modern states and economies. Moreover, modernists stress the ideological dimensions of nationalism and nature of ethnicity which is socially constructed.


Proponents of primordialist believe that ethnic identities and objective elements such as religion, language, blood ties are already “given”. Thus, those features  are transferred from generation to generation without much change (Ozkirimli, 2010). Primordialists tend to see nations as the facts which existed naturally. It is possible to examine the primordialist approaches from different dimensions: regional belonging in national identity discourses, common descent and language themes; the idea that nations organically evolved from a pre-existing layer of ethnicity, historical depth; emphasis on emotional commitment and its recall with nationalist language and symbols. These approaches, which are naturalist, culturally and biologically distinguished, have been influenced by Smith’s work (Ozkirimli, 2010).

It is clear from the definition that primordialists put the ethnicity in the first stage and nationalism in the second. More clearly, primordialists believed that nationalism was a phenomenon that developed after the formation of ethnicity (natural dimension). In addition, the division of people into different ethnic groups is part of the natural situation and these groups exclude what they consider foreign to them. Apart from that, “descent” is the most central theme for primordialists. The concepts of kinship, biological ties, blood, and ancestry are very important for national loyalty (biological dimension). However, for primordialists, there is a difference between racism and nationalism. According to George Mosse, racism is an ideology which takes account of biology and physical differences, while nationalism is a much more flexible ideology that can be examined in many ways.

According to Horowitz, nationalist policies existed outside of the modern liberal democracies. Connor has associated nationalism with the use of  “kinship” term in Hitler’s fascist and Mao’s communist discourses. The emphasis of kinship is so significant in nationalism because “the national bond is subconscious and emotional rather than conscious and rational” (Connor, 1994). Therefore, music and poetry are often at the center of nationalist discourses, because they reach deeper than rational understanding: “The core of the nation has been reached and triggered through the use of familial metaphors which can magically transform the mundanely tangible into emotion-laden phantasma . . .” (Connor, 1994).

Although Horowitz and Connor have both emphasized “kinship”, they have different aspects. According to Horowitz, kinship constitutes both the ideology and social organization of ethnicity, but this cannot fully explain nationalist politics. Ethnic politics, on the other hand, is rational in terms of responding to certain political conditions, but it is problematic. In spite of this, Connor focuses on the ideological dimension of kinship and sees the prevalence of this language as the main evidence for continuity between ethnicity and nationalism. To him, the nation: “It is a community of people who believe that they come from the same ancestry and share the common history” (Connor, 1994).

In addition to emotional ties such as kinship in nationalist discourses, Connor underlined the geographical discourses such as “homeland” and “blood and soil”. According to him,  “homeland” brings together the concepts of region, ancestry and family. This emotional attachment with the homeland is perceived as the geographic center of the ethnic-national group. Connor asserts that the discourse of the “homeland” is used to defend existing state borders, to mobilize people in case of  a national or ethnic conflict, or to destroy a “foreign” country. Grosby argued that the homeland is the given group in which we were born and our place in the world which defines “where we come from”. Apart from kinship and blood ties, another key element is language. According to the German philosopher Herder, language is a tool for people to get to know their natural world and themselves. Ideal social organizations and nations had the opportunity to develop thanks to language. Fishman, on the other hand, emphasized the importance of language in the emotional and behavioral ties between today and antiquity, arguing that language provides originality to the nations (Fishman, 1972).

The “historical” view of nationalism is so crucial for both primordialists and modernists. Anthony Smith, a primordialist thinker, focuses specifically on the history of nation and nationalism. Smith saw modern nations as a continuation of ethnic groups which are constituted from ethnies. So, he tried to find a continuity relationship between ethnic groups and nations. According to Smith, an ethnie is “a named unit of population with common ancestry myths and shared historical memories, elements of shared culture, a link with a historic territory, and some measure of solidarity, at least among the elites” . In contrast, a modern nation is “a named human population sharing a historic territory, common myths and historical memories, a mass, public culture, a common economy and common legal rights and duties for all members” (2001).


Modernists generally argue that nations and nationalism arose somewhere between the sixteenth and the late eighteenth centuries, in Europe in the first instance, largely caused by social structural transformations in that period (Hearn, 2006). Unlike “primordialists”, modernists tried to explain the term “modernist” by identifying three main themes: 1) The demands of industrial and capitalist economies in generating relatively unified national identities. A major sub-theme in this regard is the idea of the ‘uneven development’ of the modern economy as a stimulus to nationalism. 2) The modern state as a bureaucratic and legal institution generating new conceptions of citizenship. A particularly important sub-theme here is the concept of ‘civil society’. 3) The spread of literacy, linguistic homogenization and standardized education as the cornerstones of a mass culture and unified national identity. Modernists generally emphasize all of these themes in combination (Hearn, 2006). 

Ernest Gellner, an important name in defining the modernist approach, highlighted  that industrialization is very significant in the formation of nationalism. Gellner claimed that the current social order developed under two different conditions: (a) It is bringing about, or successfully maintaining, an industrial affluent society. (b) Those in authority are co-cultural with the rest of the society (1964). Gellner criticized  Elie Kadorie, who asserted that the origins of nationalism should be sought in the Enlightenment period. In contrast to Kadorie, Gellner claimed that the main change in the forms of social organization in human history was driven by the transition from agricultural society to industrial society. According to Gellner, before the modern era the horizons of most people’s lives were relatively confined to localized communities of kinship, co-residence, production and consumption and states and their political, religious and military elites sat on top of a few or many such communities, without interfering much in their daily life (1983). Moreover, this divided political structure meant that many cultures coexisted and various cultures could be tolerated in that periods. In addition, ideological integration between local communities and the elites was minimally necessary (Gellner, 1983). To Gellner, the rise of the industrial society led to the demands for workers to mobilize socially and geographically. He also claimed : “Nationalism is rooted in a certain kind of division of labour, one which is complex and persistently, cumulatively changing” (1983). 

Gellner drew attention to the role of mass education in literacy and the spread of the common language to the general population. According to him, in ancient agricultural states, priests were an elite group within the state bureaucracy, while in modern society everyone became priests (Gellner, 1964). More clearly, this “high culture” which was special to the elites in pre-modern times had spread to a large population in modern time. Gellner preferred to use the term “industrial” society instead of “capitalist” society. Because the term “capitalist” mostly refers to class conflicts that arise in modern times. Unlike Gellner, Eric Hobsbawm preferred to use the term “capitalist”. Indeed, both agree that nationalism emerged after the formation of modern societies. However, Gellner sees the formation of a social identity that is functional for life under modern conditions, Hobsbawm sees an identity that is an ideological illusion, generated by the interests of those benefiting from the capitalist state, and the fears and uncertainties of those confronting the dissolution of more traditional ways of life in the face of capitalist “progress” (Hearn, 2006). 

Hobsbawm determined a paradox, in his book which is called Nations and Nationalism Since 1780. He claims that nationalism came into its own in the nineteenth century at the same time that liberal political economic theories of Adam Smith and others were conceptualizing individuals, firms and markets as the fundamental components of economic growth, not nations or states (1992). In addition, Hobsbawm conceives of national identities as complex formations built both from the bottom up, out of raw materials of language, descent and religion, and from above, by states seeking to homogenize their subject populations to facilitate governance. In regard to ‘top down’ processes, he has articulated the influential concept of “the invention of tradition” to describe the new national states’role in synthesizing and fabricating a national culture to encourage national loyalties (Hearn, 2006).

John Breuilly, one of the representatives of the modernist movement, tried to explain the modernization process through the state. In his explanation, he drew attention to the “institutional” and “functional” division of labor. In addition to this, he defines nationalism as an oppositional political movement, justified by nationalist ideology, seeking state power (Breuilly,1993). He also divides nationalism into two criteria: (1) whether they were opposed to “non-  nation-states” (e.g. modernizing absolutist states and decaying imperial empires) or nation-states proper, and (2) whether their goals aimed at territorial separation from the state, institutional and political reform of the state, or political and territorial unification of a series of separate states (Hearn, 2006).

On the other hand, Anthony Giddens described nationalism as follows: “Nationalism is the cultural sensibility of sovereignty, the concomitant of the co-ordination of administrative power within the bounded nation-state. With the coming of the nation-state, states have an administrative and territorially ordered unity which they did not possess before. This unity cannot remain purely administrative however, because the very co-ordination of activities involved presumes elements of cultural homogeneity. The extension of communication cannot occur without the “conceptual” involvement of the whole community as a knowledgeable citizenry. A nation-state is a “conceptual community” in a way in which traditional states were not ” (1987). Another proponent of modernist approach Benedict Anderson defines nations as “an imagined political community—and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign”(1983). In his book Imagined Communities, he also emphasized the role of language in terms of nationalism: “What, in a positive sense, made the new (national) communities imaginable was a haf-fortuitous, but, explosive, interaction between a system of production and productive relations (capitalism), a technology of communications (print), and the fatality of human linguistic diversity” (1983).


There are many differences between the primordialist and modernist approach to nationalism. Primordialists believe that nationalism has been existed before the modern times. In addition, they stress “ethnicity” and emotional sides of nationalism. Modernists, on the other hand, argue that nationalism is a product of modern society and it emerged thanks to the change in economic and political systems. The ideological dimensions of nationalism are also core elements to understand modernist point of views.